The History Channel is planning re-enactments of Judge Gordon Sullivan's life.
Never forgive. Never forget.
There are numerous graphics out there that chart the rise (and possible fall) of the History Channel. For a long time, they covered a variety of history, especially pre-twentieth century events. Then they went a little World War II crazy, especially concerned with anything having to do with Hitler, their pet monster. A bit later they joined the reality TV bandwagon, producing whose relation to history was tenuous at best (Top Shot, anyone?). However, when the time came for them to release their first fictional miniseries, they chose a surprising subject: the long-running historical feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Though not the greatest miniseries of all time, Hatfields & McCoys leverages the best of what made the History Channel great while pointing the way towards more historically informed programming in the future.
Facts of the Case
The basic story of Hatfields & McCoys is easy to relate. "Anse" Hatfield (Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves) fought alongside Randolph McCoy (Bill Paxton, Weird Science) in the Civil War. Hatfield, however, leaves the fighting early to return home. When a Hatfield uncle kills a McCoy (for wearing the Union uniform), McCoy's anger is raised when he returns. Things are not helped by a romance between the younger generation, and a property dispute erupts into a bout of violence that has become famous.
Can we all agree that the worst parts of any History Channel documentary are the re-enactments? They're almost always sketchy, heavily edited moments that do little more than give the barest idea of what a scene might have been like. They're usually too clean, and their budget so low that they sacrifice whatever value they had in the face of not having the money to do justice to the period. In fact, they're often more confusing than helpful, and their cheesiness makes it hard to take the historical material seriously. A nightmare version of a History Channel miniseries would be a three-hour extension of those horrific re-enactments.
Luckily for viewers, the History Channel went a totally different direction with Hatfields & McCoys, one which gave the series the budget that such a story deserves. Rather than the cheesy visuals that mark out most re-enactments, Hatfields & McCoys plays as both compelling and historically accurate. The visual style isn't filed with gratuitous flair (like excessive camera movements), but the story is supported by a slightly toned-down color palette that evokes sepia photographs. Costumes are interesting and give the whole thing a period flavor that other shows might envy.
More importantly, Hatfields & McCoys doesn't cast a set of anonymous actors to bring these historical characters to life. Oh, no. We get giants like Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton in the leading roles. Both gentleman keep their respective patriarchs compelling without making them too likeable (these are, after all, men who engaged in a deadly feud long after reason would have dictated they lay down their arms), and both are treated fairly evenly by the film's narrative. The rest of the cast is filled out with familiar names as well. Powers Boothe shows up as a judge, Jena Malone is one of the younger McCoys, and Tom Berenger is the guy responsible for the killing that sets off much of the dispute.
On Hatfields & McCoys (Blu-ray), the series' near-five-hour running time looks good spread across two discs. The 1.78:1 AVC-encoded transfer is tack sharp and clear. The cinematography is bright and clean, with detail coming through consistently. Black levels are appropriately deep and consistent as well. The slightly desaturated colors scheme comes through solidly as well. The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is similarly impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear from the center channel, but the track really flexes its muscles during more lively scenes. Gunshots have impact, and ambient effects give a strong sense of place.
Extras start with a 30-minute making-of featurette that includes behind-the-scenes footage, scenes from the film, and interviews with the cast and crew. It's informative, but also kind of bland. The other extra is a music video by Kevin Costner and his band Modern West, who created an album based on the story of Hatfields & McCoys. It's a bit of a curiosity, most likely to appeal to those already fans of Costner and his band.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Hatfields & McCoys is avowedly an historical drama, so if that's not your thing, there's very little about this just-post Civil War drama that will convince you otherwise. Even the strong performance and excellent production values won't overcome anyone averse to historical dramas.
I admit to being a bit disappointed by the extras on offer for this first miniseries from the History Channel. Though the featurette gives a strong idea of how the episodes were made, there could be more said about the actual history of the families. I'm sure that the History Channel has a documentary or two about the Civil War or the Hatfields and McCoys specifically that would have helped flesh out the narrative and include a bit more of the history (especially the way the feud was eventually resolved in subsequent generations). The absence of such documentaries isn't fatal to this release, but given the History Channel's general commitment to history, it would have been nice.
As for the show itself, perhaps my only real complaint is that the episode structure could have been a bit smoother. It's not that each episode ends on a huge cliffhanger or anything, but watching all three episodes back-to-back makes them a bit disjointed. Again, it's not a fatal flaw, but a minor quibble.
Hatfields & McCoys is a well-produced historical drama that demonstrates where the History Channel could go into the future. If they continue to dedicate their resources to recruiting top-shelf talent to tell historical stories then they'll garner even more fans going forward. For those who enjoyed the series when it aired, Hatfields & McCoys (Blu-ray) is a great way to re-experience the show. It's worth a rental to those who like the actors or appreciate a good historical drama.
I don't know who to blame, but Hatfields & McCoys is not
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